Stu­dio Pro­file

We visit UK stu­dio Play­ground Games, the Hori­zon de­vel­oper pre­par­ing for life be­yond Forza

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY ED­WIN EVANS-THIRLWELL

From its dry­s­tone walls to its streaked au­tumn skies, Forza Hori­zon 4 is Play­ground’s most Bri­tish project, and a timely as­ser­tion of cul­tural iden­tity as the stu­dio be­comes part of the Mi­crosoft em­pire. Play­ground has al­ways had a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with Mi­crosoft, of course, hav­ing worked on Forza with fran­chise cre­ator Turn 10 since its found­ing in 2010. But it wasn’t till the un­ex­pect­edly wild suc­cess of Forza Hori­zon 3 that the idea of an ac­qui­si­tion so­lid­i­fied.

“There were con­ver­sa­tions that we’d had from time to time, as kind of in­evitably you do when you’re in a long-term part­ner­ship like that, about tak­ing the next step in our re­la­tion­ship,” chief cre­ative of­fi­cer Ralph Ful­ton tells us dur­ing a visit to the stu­dio’s el­e­gant white-plas­tered of­fices in Leam­ing­ton Spa. “I tend to re­sort to ro­man­tic al­lu­sions when talk­ing about this stuff. I think af­ter Hori­zon 3 those con­ver­sa­tions be­came more se­ri­ous.” Play­ground’s own­ers raised the idea of an ac­qui­si­tion ini­tially with Turn 10’s stu­dio head Alan Hart­man, but the con­ver­sa­tion soon ex­panded to Xbox boss Phil Spencer and head of Mi­crosoft Stu­dios Matt Booty. “It just made com­mon sense,” stu­dio di­rec­tor Gavin Rae­burn says. “It was like, ‘Why hasn’t this hap­pened ear­lier?’”

Ad­di­tional re­sources aside, one in­cen­tive for Play­ground was sim­ply ease of ac­cess. As per­haps Mi­crosoft’s most trusted third­party, it had more in­sight into the pub­lisher’s op­er­a­tions than most – the stu­dio was brought in rel­a­tively early on plans for Xbox One X, for in­stance – but there were still frus­trat­ing hur­dles. “We could talk to other stu­dios, but it had to be fil­tered, you had to go through cer­tain chan­nels,” Rae­burn says. “If we wanted to find out about new tech­nol­ogy or ini­tia­tives that were com­ing through, there was a time and place for that to hap­pen, and it was usu­ally just be­hind the curve. Now that we’re a first­party stu­dio, I can pick up the phone and dial out to 343 Stu­dios, The Coali­tion, Ninja The­ory – we can start talk­ing about tech­nol­ogy, tools, all of those con­ver­sa­tions are easy to have. And hope­fully, we can get in­volved with fu­ture plan­ning for con­soles and other ini­tia­tives.” Ful­ton hints that “even though not a great deal of time has passed since the ac­qui­si­tion – just be­fore E3, end of May – there are al­ready things we’ve had dis­closed to us that we didn’t know.”

The ele­phant in the room here is Play­ground’s mys­te­ri­ous non-rac­ing open-world project, ru­moured to be a new in­stal­ment in Lion­head’s trou­bled Fa­ble series. The lat­ter’s ex­is­tence “def­i­nitely in­flu­enced our de­ci­sion, and Xbox’s de­ci­sion, to take this step to­gether,” Ful­ton com­ments, adding that “it wouldn’t take a ge­nius to work out that they were both with Xbox. The amount of con­tent we’re go­ing to be bring­ing to the fam­ily was a cru­cial fac­tor, there.” Ideas for the game be­gan to cir­cu­late in 2016, as Play­ground com­pleted de­vel­op­ment of Forza

Hori­zon 3. While not in it­self de­signed to woo Mi­crosoft, it cer­tainly helped make the case that Play­ground was a good long-term in­vest­ment. “We felt we’d achieved suc­cess in rac­ing, and wanted to con­tinue that – we love the genre,” Rae­burn tells us. “But we felt that if we wanted to re­ally make a mile­stone for the stu­dio, we should look for suc­cess in a dif­fer­ent genre as well. Again it made sense to part­ner with Mi­crosoft, and they were re­ally sup­port­ive.”

The team in

ques­tion cur­rently shares of­fice space with the Hori­zon staff – “they’re tan­ta­lis­ingly close to you right now”, Ful­ton teases – but will move to its own premises a lit­tle way up the road next Jan­uary. With Mi­crosoft’s back­ing, Play­ground has em­barked on a hir­ing spree: it plans to add around 150 peo­ple to the new team, in ad­di­tion to re­cruit­ing for fu­ture work on Forza. The two teams will main­tain a close rap­port. “It’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to us that they don’t be­come siloed off from each other,” Ful­ton says. “I joke about it be­ing five min­utes walk [be­tween premises], but that is a sig­nif­i­cant dis­tance in how it af­fects work­ing re­la­tion­ships and knowl­edge shar­ing. We’re go­ing to work re­ally hard to make sure there are still re­ally strong ties be­tween those two teams right across each team, to make sure we are shar­ing best prac­tices, of­fer­ing guid­ance and ad­vice wher­ever ei­ther team can. Be­cause our strength comes from that com­mu­ni­ca­tion and it will make both teams bet­ter. I do think it’s a very good thing that, for the first year or so of that team’s life, they’ve been here. They’ve spent time bond­ing within the over­all cul­ture of Play­ground.”

This em­pha­sis on com­mu­ni­ca­tion nat­u­rally draws upon Play­ground’s ex­pe­ri­ences col­lab­o­rat­ing with Turn 10, a stu­dio half a world away. Four Hori­zon games in, the two stu­dios are very much in sync, and if Play­ground has more of a say these days over Forza’s over­all di­rec­tion, the ac­qui­si­tion hasn’t cre­ated any real up­heavals. “Peo­ple look at it as the point where a lot of things would change,” Ful­ton says. “It was the in­ten­tion on both sides that that wouldn’t be the case, be­cause a lot of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing was pred­i­cated on the fact that we’re pretty good at what we do, and it would be nuts to change that.”

The stu­dios con­tinue to share re­sources and fea­tures be­tween projects, from car han­dling data to the Dri­vatars, Forza Mo­tor­sport 5’ s player-gen­er­ated AI per­son­al­i­ties. “We have ac­cess to their code base, so shar­ing is quite easy,” Rae­burn says. “But we do it in a me­thod­i­cal way in that when we’ve fin­ished an item of code or work we think would be use­ful to them, we’ll high­light it. They have ac­cess to our plans, too, so they know what’s up and com­ing, and our tech leads meet on a

“IT’S IN­CRED­I­BLY IM­POR­TANT TO US THAT THE TWO TEAMS DON’T BE­COME SILOED OFF FROM EACH OTHER”

Play­ground’s of­fice ap­pears in a FH4 test track, but will never fea­ture in-game. “We thought it might get freaky if peo­ple know where we live,” CG su­per­vi­sor Jamie Woods says

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